Recovering, but still reeling: Wuhan businesses, tourism one year on from COVID-19 outbreak

Recovering, but still reeling: Wuhan businesses, tourism one year on from COVID-19 outbreak

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Crowds at a popular shopping street in Wuhan. (Photo: Olivia Siong)

WUHAN: It's full house at the Dragon Boat Restaurant on a Sunday night, and a line of diners are waiting to get in. For Mr Wu Cheng, the 28-year-old owner, it's a welcome sight.

But while business is improving, crowd levels are only at 70 to 80 per cent of what they were before the COVID-19 outbreak.

Once the epicentre of China’s COVID-19 pandemic, Wuhan today stands in contrast to several cities around the world, which have shut bars and restaurants again due to a resurgence of the virus.

The city of 11 million provides the bulk of China‘s COVID-19 cases and deaths but has not reported a locally transmitted case since May.

"The pandemic has changed people’s views towards consumption," said Mr Wu, a native of Wuhan. "Some may still mind coming out to places like restaurants where there are crowds."

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Wu Cheng at his Guangdong cuisine restaurant in Wuhan city. (Photo: Olivia Siong)

To allay this concern, the restaurant has reduced the number of tables at its premises - from 19 to 15 - to create more space between diners. But this has affected turnover.

Mr Wu thinks the eatery has also lost out on customers because there are fewer people from other parts of China working in Wuhan.

The city was placed under a 76-day lockdown from January to April, as authorities tried to contain the rising number of COVID-19 cases.

READ: Careful first steps back to normality for Wuhan residents as COVID-19 lockdown is lifted

Mr Wu expects to make a loss of about US$45,000 this year and has shelved plans to open a second outlet. Painful decisions were also made to cut cost.

"Many of our previous staff called (after the lockdown) saying they were willing to come back to work, but we could only gently turn them away," said Mr Wu.

"We had no choice because everyone is having a hard time this year. I felt a bit guilty … This was a hard decision to make."

OUT OF BOUNDS 

Business development plans were not the only thing Mr Wu needed to make adjustments to. Previously, he and his staff frequented the Huanan wholesale seafood market to buy ingredients.

The place is widely believed to be where the coronavirus first emerged.

Today, tall blue barricades block the public’s view of the market, which remains shuttered and out of bounds.

"My impression of Huanan is that the environment wasn’t very good," said Mr Wu. "Besides frozen goods, they also sold fresh produce like beef, mutton, fish and seafood."

Mr Wu said stalls have since been moved to other markets in the city and he still gets ingredients delivered from some of them.

In recent months, Chinese state media have increasingly pushed the narrative that COVID-19 may not have originated from the Huanan seafood market, or even Wuhan.

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Huanan seafood market in Wuhan remains boarded up. (Photo: Olivia Siong)

Instead, it has suggested that the virus may have been imported from abroad through frozen food and packaging.

The World Health Organization recently said that it would be "highly speculative" to say the virus did not emerge in China.

POST-PANDEMIC CHALLENGES

The Wuhan Renshoutang Nursing and Eldercare Home is just 500m from the Huanan seafood market. When news of people falling ill to new viral ailment started becoming more frequent, it raised alarm bells.

The nursing home sealed off its premises on Jan 20, three days before Wuhan was placed under lockdown. For the 600 seniors and 200 staff members who remained in the nursing home, it would be almost six months before they were allowed to step outside again.

"At the time, what we were lacking and needed the most were public medical resources," said deputy centre director Tian Meng Jie. 

"Wuhan’s entire healthcare system was practically at its breaking point." 

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Staff and seniors at the Wuhan Renshoutang Nursing and Eldercare Home. (Photo: Olivia Siong)

Aside from a shortage of masks and protective suits, Ms Tian said fatigue was also a major concern with staff taking on extra roles to look after the residents at the facility. 

While the pandemic appears to be under control in Wuhan today, the nursing home is not taking any chances.

Family visits can now only take place at the ground level, once a week for a limited period of time. Seniors are also no longer allowed to leave the premises except for special reasons.

The more stringent measures have resulted in some residents opting to leave the nursing home. This, coupled with the increased costs of preventive measures, means the facility expects to lose about US$760,000 this year.

"Our feeling is that there are just as many challenges during the post-pandemic period as there were during the outbreak," said Ms Tian.

"Earlier on, all of society was going through this, things were out of your control, but now the pressure of operations and medical care needs to be re-looked."

BRINGING BACK THE TOURISTS

Chinese authorities are also on a drive to woo tourists back to Wuhan.

Campaigns aimed at domestic travellers have been launched. These include free entry to tourist attractions and a new promotional video showcasing the city’s best sights and delicacies.

"This year hasn’t been easy because of the pandemic, and right now, the situation is more stable, and we thought we’d have a look at the sights here," said 22-year-old tourist Xie Xiaowei who was visiting from Guangzhou.

Chinese authorities have also engaged groups like Beijing-based social platform FCN to promote the city. In October, FCN organised a tour to Wuhan for foreigners living in China.

More than 40 people signed up for the trip, which apart from the usual tourist spots included a visit to the Leishenshan hospital - an emergency facility that was built in less than two weeks, to cope with the overwhelming number of COVID-19 patients during the height of the outbreak.

Foreigners on this tour are also brought to an exhibition set up by Chinese authorities - showcasing Wuhan and the country’s success in taming the pandemic.

"When the pandemic broke out in Wuhan, there were many views around the world, and people didn’t have a very accurate understanding of Wuhan," said Celine Liu, who is FCN’s deputy general manager.

"In April, with an improvement in the pandemic situation in China, FCN had the idea of letting the world hear from Wuhan (for themselves)."

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The COVID-19 exhibition in Wuhan. (Photo: Olivia Siong)

WATCH: Businesses in Wuhan still not out of the woods a year after COVID-19 outbreak began

"MANY WOLVES, BUT NOT ENOUGH MEAT"

But some tourist reliant businesses say government assistance may need to continue for a while.

Ms Wu Xin owns a stall selling local dishes, like Wuhan’s signature dry, hot noodles, in the popular tourist spot Hubu Alley.

She said government-incentivised groups help bring some much-needed footfall. Without them, tourist numbers may only be at about 10 per cent of what they were before.

"There have been tour groups of seniors who came, and they would say that it’s only because of the government subsidies. Otherwise, they wouldn’t dare to visit as it was so dangerous at the time," said Ms Wu.

"But I would tell them that Wuhan is not dangerous. The whole population has been tested, it is safe."

Tourists aside, there is another group of usual customers conspicuously absent from Ms Wu's food stall. Many of the city’s university students have to remain on campus, as part of COVID-19 prevention measures. 

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Food stall owner Wu Xin. She sells local Wuhan dishes. (Photo: Olivia Siong)

More than 18 million people visited Wuhan during the National Day holiday in October. But 30-year-old Jiang Shao, who owns a small hotel in Hubu Alley, has observed that those numbers have tailed off since the start of winter.

"We say there are many wolves, but not enough meat. There are still so many hotels, but there aren’t many tourists," said Mr Jiang.

He attributes this to the cold weather, as well as recent reports of new local cases of COVID-19 in several parts of China. In a desperate attempt to stay afloat,  he has lowered room rates - one can be had for just US$8 a night. 

"Others in the industry have asked me if I am still going to make money with this rate. Of course, I won’t, but it’s better than the rooms being empty," he said. 

"How long can I hold on for? Right now, we are holding on through loans. It’s very difficult."

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Source: CNA/ac

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